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by Rob Burns
Only 90 miles over the sea from the US but worlds away..
The Zephyr; a hotel lobby like a Newtown Woolworth. Magnificently unimpressive. An eclectic 50's leftover that says all that needs to be said about the aspirations of pre-revolutionary Cuba. A George Raft of an hotel, it's foundations buried deep in the pit of corrupt capitalism, it's roof garden now casting both a literal and metaphoric shadow over Havana.

Restored in the early 90's to solicit US Dollars from any world traveller who may care to deal in them. Seemingly nothing had changed in 40 years, other than a fax machine in a distant corner which whirled and gurgled and alerted several costumed women who ushered and directed with a rehearsed sense of purpose, then wrote receipts or instructions of little importance on carbon paper pads of little substance, perhaps to justify their employment, or maybe just the uniforms.

How many Cubans does it take to send a fax, make a phone call, operate a lift, sell a souvenir, wait at a table? Answer. All of them. The Art Deco reception must surely have stumbled the first time around? The kitsch counter with its pretend light fittings. The fake marble pillars next to palm trees in concrete pots which grew out of the terrazzo floor. The high mirrored panels behind the three receptionists serving only to reflect the dull, sand coloured walls and the selection of framed paintings which someone, somewhere must have though looked like art. Nothing suggested that the word 'reality' could be found in a Cuban dictionary.

Inside Room 1503 the paradigm continued. The recently vacuumed bed, the alarmingly damaged television pumping out 'visiprop' promotions for an imagined good life which could only exist in the confused brains of tourist office sooth-sayers. "...this ideal family outing...this perfect evening for two...this glorious Caribbean location where you can live out your fantasies beneath the stars..." This hopelessly misguided American dream. And the guide book said. "As the water supply may be interrupted it is advisable to fill the bath with water when you can so as to have a constant supply".

Havana buckled and twisted beneath storm winds. The influential 'Granma' in its editorial claimed "it was the worst cyclone in 100 years. A years rainfall in 24 hours" The sea filled the streets and the prestigious underpasses and turned cellars into swimming pools. The sea battered the Melecona, lifting chunks of sea wall and bits of promenade to deposited them deep into the first floor rooms of nearby houses. To the east, waves smashed hundreds of feet into the air as they met the lighthouse at Castillo Morro; and stopped. Closer, a road tanker straddled the dual roadway at a curious, debilitating angle and rested against what had been an ice cream parlour; until yesterday. Above, clouds of black and grey gambled with the sky for space and won.

Those who lived near the waterfront bailed out their homes with makeshift buckets and shifted concrete with bare hands. Detritus is mixed with personal belongings and forms a sort of pulp which covers the side walks. But they had seen it all before and survived.

In the long and narrow streets of Old Havana, buildings reflect what was and shout what is. In dark alleys, hybrid groups replace bits of Cadilacs for bits of Ladas in an attempt to keep moving. By rights it should be an International Heritage site but it isn't. What shops there are no longer trade as there is nothing to trade in although curiously, people stand about in groups in the hope that they might begin again. In the streets, children play in bare feet and brightly coloured clothes and smile and wave at the visitor.

Vadado, with its fine architecture. Dwellings for diplomats, their houses and planted gardens almost hidden behind high metal fences. Giant Ceiba trees with their trailing branches which turn magically to roots as they touch the ground. Banana and Orange trees as commonplace as flat roofs and tarpaulin covered Roadsters. Passing young women wearing embarrassed smiles, who walk hand in hand beneath coconut trees, then ask from a safe distance, 'would the visitor like to take their photograph?' Maramar, where a shanty town has sprung-up between established homes and men sit in the shade and drink beer.

Cuba. An island floating in a sea of prejudice and contradiction, both for and against. Of things which might have been or once were and which may be again. Of perceptions of the big bad birdie on the outside being fought off with rhetoric from the ramparts whilst below the drawbridge is still down from when the last load of day trippers left a few short years ago, taking their ball and chain with them. Now the players no longer know the rules of the game or how big the pitch is or when the final whistle will blow or who is likely to blow it. In the meantime the home team get on with the game without proper kit, without transport to and from the ground, without substitutes, without the benefit of a half decent match diet or even a game plan.

The last time they won was in '59, so it's been a while. Now memory, and the continual re-printing of pre-match ephemera, serves them well. And their goal scoring hero's look very much like our own of '64, or like ours would have done if we had drawn beards, moustache's, folds of black hair and berets onto of their pale anglophile faces.

The away team have the advantage in this banana shaped republic. They come and go and trade in the best of taste. They live in cossetted hotels with air conditioning and are delivered to the stadium in throbbing, throaty, smoked glass, logotyped, toileted superbuses. For the away team, nothing is too much trouble. Everything is available to replace lost kit, lost energy. Lost Empire.

So how does the home team demonstrate this imbalance? With boos and hisses and protests against having to play both halves uphill? No, they receive their visitors with smiles and embraces, with openness and love of life. With poetry of movement and a philosophic matter of factness which accepts that things may well get worse as the match moves into extra time. And with a respect for humanity which would, if the rules were fair, send many an away team member heading for an early bath, along with their manager.

As for the politics of it all. Well that's for the home team to sort out. But a review of the rulebook by the International Ruling Body in New York is long overdue....

ROB BURNS 2000 (writer, runner and lecturer )


Sprachcaffe Cuba Travel - Offering Cuba group and individual tours - Hotels - Spanish courses - Diving course - Dancing courses.

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